Lessons from Life on Planning Watercolors

woman having meal with healthy food and strong coffee
Planning an entire meal involves more than just knowing cooking techniques. Chances are, you’re all quite familiar with this sort of planning, so let’s see how it connects with planning watercolors.

The wealth of self-study materials for watercolor—books, video, online courses—means it’s easy and convenient to get started painting on your own. You can learn just about any watercolor technique imaginable on YouTube, for free. But, it’s difficult to learn how to develop and plan your own paintings by reading books and watching videos. For the most part, you learn to plan your own paintings by actually planning your own paintings. How do you even know where to begin?

Coaching helps, but it’s not an option for everyone. Luckily, you can often coach yourself using analogies to something you already know how to do: cooking and meal planning.

Cooking is another subject where you can find a zillion books and videos helping you learn the technical how-to, from how to braise a brisket to how to make pretty radish garnishes. But there is a lot more to planning a meal than knowing a lot of techniques or recipes. 

We don’t think much about it, because most of us grow up watching the adults around us plan and prepare meals. We slowly absorb the understanding that planning an entire meal involves more than just knowing cooking techniques. 

It even involves thinking about more than just the food: how many people, budget, time of day, type of event, dietary restrictions, traditions for this type of event, what sort of plates, utensils, and serving items you’ll need, seating and table space, perhaps even how to keep things hot or cold for a picnic. And then, as you start to plan the actual menu, there are questions about how to coordinate so everything is ready to serve at the same time. You may need to make changes to the initial plan because you only have just so much space in the fridge or oven. 

Chances are, you’re all quite familiar with this sort of planning, so let’s see how it connects with planning watercolors.

Meals (and artworks) have a purpose and a setting

We make meals for a reason: to nourish ourselves and others, and share the sensory pleasures of eating. Meal-planning starts there, not with some random cooking techniques; meal-planning is planning with a purpose

We think about who we are feeding; what we know of their tastes, needs and preferences; and how this meal fits into their lives or day as we think about what to prepare. Breakfast for four on a lazy Sunday morning calls for a completely different plan than finger foods for an art reception. 

Art has a purpose and a setting, too. We make art to nourish our spirits. And we encounter art in different ways: on the wall at the dentist’s office, a postcard from a friend on the bulletin board over your desk, a crayon drawing from your grandchild on your fridge, a quick sketch in your journal from a trip three years ago.

So in planning an “art meal”, it helps to start with pretty much the same questions. Whose spirit am I feeding with this art? What do I know of their tastes, needs and preferences? How will this art fit into their day? Not every “art meal” is a painting that is going to get framed and hung on a wallThat’s the equivalent of a “special occasion” meal; most art-making is for more “everyday consumption.

Planning an “art meal’” step 1: 

Whose spirit am I feeding with this art? What do I know of their tastes, needs and preferences? How will this art fit into their day? 

Right away, this can change how you view your art-making practice. A lot of days, you’re “artmaking for one”. Why not be guided by your own tastes and preferences? Why insist that every “art meal” has to be a “finished” painting or directly related to a finished painting?

Who cares if it’s just a bowl of soup for dinner because today you’re feeling cold and worn down and soup is comforting and easy? Who cares whether you “finish” the sketch or doodles in your sketchbook, if your spirit is satisfied? You can come back for “leftovers” or leave it unfinished forever—it won’t spoil! Who cares if you have the same “art meal” today you had yesterday? You get to decide what’s “good nutrition” for your spirit. 

If you’re making an “art meal” for someone else, then you can ask what you know of their tastes, needs and preferences, and how this “art meal” will fit into their life or day. Is it going to be a large painting to hang in their new home, a little abstract splash of color to spice up a gloomy corner in their home office, or a postcard with a single chili pepper to “spice things up” during the winter gloom?

Of course, just because your guests’ very favorite foods are grilled fresh-caught halibut and key lime pie, that doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to serve that. You still have to consider your budget, what ingredients are available, what cooking skills and equipment you have, how much time you can devote, etc. Maybe you’ll look up key lime pie recipes, but serve a different entree. Often, you don’t worry about whether you’re serving someone their “all-time favorite” foods; you just aim for something they’ll enjoy.

Planning an “art meal”, step 2: 

What time, energy and resources do I want to devote to this “art meal” (today!)? What skills and techniques do I have? What could I learn or discover how to do? If I don’t have the skills, resources or energy to make the ideal “meal”, can I substitute or simplify it in a way that still gives a pleasing result?

Thinking about how you learned to coordinate a meal also helps you see that you don’t have to learn “all the techniques” first before you start developing your own ideas into paintings. You just need to keep the design simple and make good use of what you already know. It helps to ask, “What can I make from what I already know how to do?” instead of “What should I paint?”

If you know how to make an omelet, toss a salad and bake a crusty loaf of bread, you have all the cooking techniques you need to host a lovely meal, fit for company. Keeping the meal simple means you also keep the planning challenges simple.

You still need to figure out what order to do things, but you’ll probably guess mostly right. Maybe you’ll learn by experience to take the bread out a little early, so it can cool a bit before trying to slice it. Maybe you’ll decide not to add dressing to the salad until you are tossing it at the table so it doesn’t wilt. But those small details won’t make the meal a failure either way. 

And you actually have the basis for many lovely meals, simply by making substitutions: different filling in the omelet, different type of salad, hard rolls instead of a loaf of bread, soup instead of omelet. Choosing the freshest local ingredients and thoughtfully combining flavors and textures can elevate this simple meal into something you’d see on the menu at a trendy restaurant. 

Can you make a satisfying “art meal” by rearranging and changing things you already know how to do? Can you keep the planning challenges manageable by using a simple structure modeled on some other painting you’ve done? Does it have to be the “ideal” painting to be satisfying? Does it even have to be a painting at all? 

work your way up gradually to complicated meals

The fastest way to get to the point where you could confidently and successfully host a sit-down Thanksgiving dinner for 36—including your vegan niece, your other niece on the keto diet, two toddlers who will only eat hotdogs, and your diabetic uncle—is definitely not to start there. 

And especially not for every single meal! 

That just guarantees stress, frustration, and discouragement. If that was the standard for being able to cook, most of us would have given up long ago. And no one would want to eat Thanksgiving dinner for every meal, either. 

And yet, that’s the demand many of us put on our art, right from the beginning! The only really worthy art is something that could be framed and hung in a high-end gallery. If you take this attitude towards art, you might wind up selling your work from a high-end gallery. More likely, you’ll have no fun, conclude you have no talent at all, and give up in short order. 

But, you could make a plan to be ready to host Thanksgiving dinner next year. 

If you don’t have a lot of cooking experience, maybe you’ll need some new technical skills: learn to make the various must-have dishes from the appropriate family recipes, roast a turkey or two to see how that goes without also trying to make five side dishes and two desserts, decide what side dishes and desserts you enjoy making that will satisfy your crowd’s needs. And all of this will be interspersed with a lot of more relaxed, “ordinary” meals, based on things that aren’t a big challenge, or just other foods you enjoy.

With this strategy for learning to host Thanksgiving dinner, you are not learning random “how-to”. You are testing techniques/dishes that will play a particular role in the overall meal. In the same way, if you aspire to paint something that seems beyond your planning ability right now, you can use that to focus your technical learning. 

And this is important: this learning is interspersed with plenty of opportunities to do what you already know how to do, and nourish yourself without a lot of stress or worries about whether the recipe is going to turn out. 

Or you could also just say, “Nope. Thanksgiving dinner for 36 is not my thing.” You’re not required to make paintings to frame and hang on the wall, much less complicated paintings requiring lots of skills and effort.

Planning an “art meal”, step 3: 

If the “ideal” painting I’d like to paint is more than I am capable of at this point, is there a simpler version that I could handle? Can I come up with several simpler paintings and experiments that would actually help me acquire the skills to paint my “ideal” painting?

Example: I want to paint a barn at sunrise, with frost-covered weeds in the foreground against a shadowy field, and a “V” of geese flying overhead. 

Potential difficulties:

  • It’s hard to figure out how to draw the barn’s gambrel roof and cupola in perspective.
  • I’ve never painted distant geese in flight.
  • I don’t know how to reserve light-colored fine-textured weeds in the foreground, much less coated with frost!
  • I’m still not great with laying a graded wash. And, how will I handle painting around the roof of the barn and creating a smooth color gradation in the sky?

Simpler “art meals”:

  • to figure out the perspective
    • Painting a closer view of the barn, showing just a bit of pale pink sky and a little suggestion of darker foreground. 
    • Or, maybe just some pencil drawings of the barn, working on understanding the perspective without worrying about paint. 
  • to figure out the weeds and frost
    • A painting of light-colored weeds (with or without frost!) against an out-of-focus darker background. 
    • Or, when I feel too tired and stressed to work on a painting, I can pull out a few scraps of watercolor paper and mess around with different possibilities for suggesting frost. 
  • to figure out the sunrise sky
    • A series of sunrise paintings with different skies and just a little bit of distant treeline, maybe a distant silhouette of the barn and a suggestion of a field in the foreground. 
    • Or, maybe just some color swatching to decide what pigments might work to create the feeling of a frosty sunrise.
  • to figure out the geese
    • A variety of postcards of skies (maybe from other sky practice), each with a “V” of geese. 
    • Or, maybe just fill the margins of a sketch book page with doodled brushmarks that might look a bit like geese. 

Any time this gets boring or tedious, it’s time to have a different “art meal”, something that you can do confidently. It’s not uncommon for artists to work for months or years towards really complex art projects. And often, you stumble across the solution you need for a complicated art project in the process of doing something else entirely. 

Most of us aspire to paint more than one complex painting, so when you get sick of working on “Thanksgiving dinner”, you can try recipes your next tailgate party instead (or make bugs-on-a-log with your grandkids). Variety in the “art meals” you consume is good “nutrition”, too!

Instead of feeling like you can’t start painting until you learn an overwhelming collection of techniques, you can just start feeding your creative spirit with simpler “art meals” right away. Instead of requiring each art-making session to be more and more complicated and challenging, let yourself recognize the valuable nourishment from ordinary, everyday art meals. Little doodles and experiments done in a few spare moments—maybe to practice a skill, or maybe just because you need to get your mind off the news by watching colors mingle. 

Let yourself create simpler paintings where you have a decent chance of success and develop confidence with the skills you already have. Tackle paintings that help you solve the specific problems and gain the specific skills you need to paint those “ideal” paintings you aspire to paint someday. (And bonus: Many times you discover you didn’t really want all that going on in one painting anyway, and a simpler version has more clarity and punch!)

When I catch myself thinking a painting is too simple or basic, this meal planning analogy helps me remember: a simple thing that fits the need exactly and is carried out thoughtfully is often the most satisfying (and beautiful). Sometimes you just need a comforting bowl of soup. 

next steps: becoming an “art chef”

Some of you are probably wondering: okay, but how does this help me learn to come up with something creative and original?

The same way you learned to make creative and original meals. By making small variations, and then larger ones, to meals you’ve already eaten, guided by your tastes and preferences and feedback from the people you cook for. By tasting things and thinking, “I bet this salad would be good with some toasted pecans!” and then trying it. By making variations to recipes, trying different cuisines, noticing what flavors and textures you really enjoy together, by asking other people to taste your variations. 

That’s exactly how artists come up with “original work”. Start with a little variation on something you like, then change it some more, then combine it with this other idea over here, use your own favorite colors or a different way of applying the paint.

Messing around, but messing around with a deep purpose. To discover what works, yes, but more importantly, to discover what appeals to you. What do you like the look of, but also, what do you like the making of? Not everything you like to look at (or eat) is something you enjoy making. This is important to know if you want your art-making to remain joyful!

Let yourself learn to plan the way you learned to coordinate a meal: by starting simple, making variations to what you already know and adding new challenges gradually as you gain experience. 

Remember: a bowl of soup can be the most satisfying meal on a snowy day. And if you want to jazz it up, all it takes is a loaf of crusty bread or a crunchy salad or a killer dessert. And then, someday, you’ll be ready to add all three, turn the soup into a first course, and grill that fresh-caught halibut. 

Your experience in cooking and meal-planning can help you identify where you are stuck and how to plan paintings that lead you toward acquiring the technical skills and planning experience you need for more complex paintings. Most of all, stop waiting for some magic future day when you know all the techniques. 

Start feeding your spirit with simple “art meals” now! “Taste” adventurously, experiment freely, and above all, do what nourishes your creative spirit.

Happy painting!

You may also like . . . 

It’s Not All About Hue – Imposters and Chameleons

It’s Not All About Hue – Imposters and Chameleons

Color-mixing is often discussed as if the only consideration is getting “the right color”, but watercolor pigments each have their own physical and chemical properties. This video presents some activities to help you develop a more sophisticated understanding of color-mixing so you become better at choosing and mixing pigments to create the artistic effects—including perceived color—you desire.

read more
How I Use Autodesk Sketchbook to Plan Changes to Paintings

How I Use Autodesk Sketchbook to Plan Changes to Paintings

Sketchbook Pro is a great tool for quickly planning changes to a painting in progress, and it’s free. This video introduces the small set of features I use in my planning process, so you can get started quickly without having to go through a lot of features you don’t need.

read more
My Cure for Winter Blues

My Cure for Winter Blues

Wild and garish? Sure, but I can always paint over it (or parts of it) later. For now, it has the same effect on me as opening a brand-new box of 64 Crayolas. Just what I needed to get me past the “winter blues”!

read more
Mining for Gems

Mining for Gems

When the Big Pile of Nope in your studio gets too big and discouraging, it’s time to go mining!

read more
Reserving and Recovering Light Values: Strategies to Consider

Reserving and Recovering Light Values: Strategies to Consider

Getting light color values in watercolor works a little differently than in other mediums, since watercolor is transparent. In watercolor, we rely on the white color of the paper to give us our lighter values, meaning that a watercolorist’s main options are reserving or recovering whites. This article lists some of the strategies you can use to reserve and recover whites and light values.

read more
The Lazy Way to Build Painting Confidence

The Lazy Way to Build Painting Confidence

This article is the third in a series. The preceding articles are: Is My Painting Done? Are You a "Photocopier"? There's a Better Way In response to the last article, a reader made a couple of excellent points about why it's sometimes difficult to deviate from a...

read more